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Workplace Culture: How to Fix a Toxic Work Environment

  • Recursos humanos
  • Artículo
  • Lectura de 6 minutos
  • Last Updated: 06/14/2024

A disengaged employee working in a toxic work environment

Table of Contents

Managing an unhealthy work environment can be difficult for any employer or employee. Learn some of the signs of a toxic work environment and some strategies to identify and repair a toxic work culture.

Many factors may contribute to a negative work environment, but one thing is certain. A business cannot expect to perform at its best under such conditions.

A business with a toxic workplace environment or culture can face serious problems. If there are signs of employee mistrust, isolation, and poor leadership, the result may be lowered morale and productivity, culminating in increased employee disengagement.

When an employee becomes disengaged at work, they may begin to do the bare minimum, neglecting to put in extra effort, or even slowing at a very slow pace. Many factors can influence disengagement, such as systematically low compensation for workers compared against the market, a toxic culture, or disengaged leadership. Yet there are factors that can also disenfranchise specific employees, such as unclear expectations or a lack of communication.

Turning around a toxic working environment should be among every business leader’s top priorities. Over time, a toxic work environment may be costly for employee morale and the company’s bottom line.

What Is a Toxic Work Environment?

Here are a few indicators of a toxic environment:

  • Employees do not speak up for fear of backlash, criticism, or punishment
  • Recognition is non-existent – hard work is not acknowledged or appreciated
  • Leadership uses fear-based management approaches, power plays, or micromanagement
  • Employees are counting down the minutes until the end of the day
  • Employees’ health takes a hit (emotional, mental, physical)

Signs of a Toxic Workplace

Some signs of a toxic work culture can be pretty hard to miss:

  1. Fear-based leadership
  2. Unproductive and demoralized employees
  3. An atmosphere of gossip and rumors
  4. A lack of transparency from the top down
  5. Stress and uncertainty about the future
  6. A sense of “it’s us against them” or “it’s everyone for themselves"
  7. Significant instances of absenteeism
  8. Workaholic behavior and a lack of healthy work/life balance
  9. Unclear employer expectations across all levels of management
  10. Favoritism, wage gaps, or inconsistent enforcement of company policy

Clearly, none of these conditions epitomize a healthy workplace. Combine several or all of them, and your business may be in danger of collapsing from within. In these circumstances, the company’s leadership must acknowledge what’s happening and remedy the situation.

Here are actions you can take to start repairing the damage of a toxic work environment and to demonstrate to employees that you genuinely intend to turn things around.

How To Change a Toxic Environment at Work

While company leaders could guess the source of the problem, a more effective approach involves hearing from employees themselves.

Consider conducting a survey to assess workplace-related issues. (Conducting an anonymous survey might be advantageous for getting a more truthful response.) The goal is to clearly understand what employees see as the negative parts of the current culture. Then, employers should build a plan to address them.

Everyone deserves a workplace where they’re excited to contribute, where talents are nurtured, and employees can thrive.

Conduct an Employee Survey

A well-crafted employee survey can help company leaders assess current workplace culture, employees’ intention to stay with the company long-term, their willingness to recommend the company to others, and their overall pride in the company.

Turning around a poisonous work environment begins with open discussions about your business’s internal problems. Employees will hopefully be persuaded of your good intentions if you schedule a meeting (or series of meetings) to review and discuss your survey findings. You can invite them to offer solutions while emphasizing there is no penalty for being honest or suggesting out-of-the-box ideas. Then, if you implement new programs based on employee feedback, they may be far more likely to accept those programs.

Strive for Openness

In some businesses, information concerning hiring practices and financial data are held “close to the vest” by senior leadership. This may have worked in the past, but in a digital era--where all sorts of information can be discovered online--it’s potentially detrimental to leadership. Presumably, you’ve hired employees for their intelligence and willingness to contribute to business growth. They’re unlikely to appreciate being kept out of the loop.

When it comes to company transparency, sharing information may lead to:

  • A stronger, more cohesive team
  • Better goal setting
  • More flattening of company hierarchy
  • An increase in employee happiness

Consider holding more one-on-one employee and/or company-wide meetings, with presentations by your financial officers and others that clearly show what’s happening with the business. Confidential or sensitive information may need to be withheld. However, allowing people to ask questions can help boost employee engagement.

Many dysfunctional cultures result from a leadership team's lack of transparency. Look for opportunities to share more information about how strategic decisions are made, the company’s financial well-being, etc. Secrecy can breed worry and negative speculation. Being open about business operations can make employees feel they’re being treated as genuine team members.

Look Into Employee Concerns About Bad Working Conditions

A toxic work environment can result from a lack of attention to employee concerns. Consider conducting a brief engagement survey that focuses on specific areas of improvement. Invite an unbiased observer (either from elsewhere within the organization or a third-party individual) who can spend a little time in the workplace and offer a fresh perspective.

When you pinpoint the gap in expectations with unhappy employees and look for overall trends that could contribute to this issue, you’ll be well on your way to getting things back on track.

Increase Recognition and Reward Programs

If your hardworking employees don’t perceive any benefits from their output in the form of company-wide recognition or advancement opportunities down the road, workplace toxicity might take hold. Whenever feasible, reward your employees with a raise in pay, additional benefits, and/or performance-specific bonuses.

Employees are more motivated to do outstanding work if they know the company will formally acknowledge and reward those efforts. Bonuses, raises, or promotions can be the clearest examples of a business rewarding its top performers. However, there are many non-monetary ways to thank your employees as well. The alternative is a workforce that may feel there’s no good reason to do anything but the basic functions of their jobs.

Other employee recognition programs that offer awards, VIP parking spaces, small gifts, and other public acknowledgments of a job well done that may also have a positive effect on employee retention.

Offer Support for an Overworked Staff

Whether from employees leaving, company layoffs, or simply unrealistic workflows, workers may feel the stress of heavy workloads when they already have more than enough on their plates. An atmosphere in which people feel steadily drained of energy or no sense of achievement can contribute to a stressful work environment.

One way to assist your overworked employees is to prioritize the tasks and projects they manage. Work with staff to arrange tasks by degree of importance—items or tasks that must be addressed ASAP. Then, go through the list of items and tasks that can be addressed either later that day or during that week. This helps employees decide where to put their energies to maximize productivity.

Examine Leadership’s Role in Fixing a Toxic Work Culture

As in many other cases, a company’s leadership plays an essential role in determining the organization’s relative health (or lack thereof). When effective leadership is missing, the following results can be commonly observed:

  1. Blatant favoritism towards specific employees
  2. A mindset that regards employees as the company’s property rather than as contributors to the business
  3. An underlying belief that employees are inherently under-motivated or easily dispensed with
  4. A lack of accountability at the highest levels of the organization

Any of the above can contribute to an environment where employees feel undervalued and/or operate in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Improve Your Leadership Communication Skills

A leader leads through their words and actions. In the hectic pace of day-to-day life, business owners sometimes forget that employees are watching them and how they behave. Employees may even adapt their own behaviors to conform to how they perceive the leaders want them to act. If an owner or manager is out of touch with staff or stays sequestered in a private office all day, the result may be a workforce that becomes disengaged from the work that they are doing or the company they work for.

Focus on improving your communication abilities and inspiring others. Consider implementing a regular communications schedule that stresses ongoing contact with employees and gives them a stronger sense of their value to the organization.

What Comes Next After Your Culture Assessment

Recognizing that a toxic work culture exists is the crucial first step in fixing the problem. What happens next after you put together an action plan that incorporates some or all the above suggestions?

The important thing to remember is that change for the better may not occur immediately. Improvements in the work environment may occur gradually. However, by addressing the problem, you may see tangible results. Additional steps to take include:

  1. Conduct brief surveys regularly to assess employee enthusiasm for the new initiative.
  2. Maintain open communication and support an atmosphere of transparency that keeps progress moving forward.
  3. If the toxic environment still needs fixing after implementing your action plan, start thinking about addressing deeper organizational barriers.
  4. Do everything you can to help employees see the changes you strive for. This may result in a more positive, employee-friendly, and productive work environment.

Fixing a negative work environment won’t happen overnight. Communicate to your employees how this is a key objective and manage their expectations about how the process will look. You may be pleasantly surprised at the change you see in your business environment once employees understand you’re genuinely intent on improving their work culture.

Whether you’re looking for ways to help fix a toxic work culture or other ways to improve employee relations, Paychex can help with your business’s human resources needs. Learn more about HR outsourcing and guidance, or contact us today to get started.


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* Este contenido es solo para fines educativos, no tiene por objeto proporcionar asesoría jurídica específica y no debe utilizarse en sustitución de la asesoría jurídica de un abogado u otro profesional calificado. Es posible que la información no refleje los cambios más recientes en la legislación, la cual podrá modificarse sin previo aviso y no se garantiza que esté completa, correcta o actualizada.

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